It’s easy to be put off without the help of someone who can show you the different ways whisky can be enjoyed or explain the factors that make this spirit unique.
My first experience of whisky was at a tasting with around 30 industry professionals who knew a lot more about the spirit than I did at the time. Too afraid to ask how to drink the amber liquid in my glass, I knocked it back in one and spent the next thirty seconds stifling a cough from the unpleasant burning sensation in my throat.
Thankfully, the second whisky came with a few words of advice from my neighbour: “Try adding a few drops of water and sip, slowly.”
The intense alcohol is often what turns people away, but when you understand the important role it plays in flavour and how to dilute the spirit or engage all of your senses so that it becomes less overpowering, whisky gets a lot more exciting.
It’s like the first time you tried coffee or even beer or wine, and you wondered how other people enjoyed what they were drinking. Whisky is much the same; with time you will learn how to appreciate its complex flavours and maybe even come to love the liquid.
A GUIDE TO TASTING
Tasting a whisky at home or in a bar is the next step to deepening your understanding and appreciation of the spirit. Discover more from your whisky, whether it’s neat, on the rocks or with a splash of water.
- Small tulip shaped glass
- Pen and paper
- Whisky (10-15ml per tasting)
- Bottled or spring water
Hold the whisky in your glass to the light and note if it’s clear or a little cloudy. Generally, a younger whisky will sparkle while an older whisky will have a rich colour from years spent in wood.
If it has a reddish hue, the whisky is likely to have been matured in European red oak previously used to mature sherry or port. A light golden hue suggests an ex-bourbon barrel.
Next, swirl the whisky around the glass, coating the interior thoroughly. See how the whisky runs down the side of the glass in tiny streams called legs. If they run down quickly and in many streams, the whisky is light bodied, probably a young whisky. A medium or heavy bodied whisky will form larger, slower legs.
If this is your first time tasting, we recommend adding a large piece of ice or three drops of water to your whisky to help soften and open up the aroma.
First, swirl the whisky around in the glass a few times to help further release the aromas and then gently sniff the whisky with your mouth open to engage more of your senses.
Write down what you smell. If it’s vanilla and caramel, it will likely be bourbon; smoky and it may be peated; raisins and fruit cake and ex-sherry barrels may have been used.
Check the label of your whisky and see if the aromas you find correspond with the tasting note from the distillery.
Now to taste the whisky. Start by sipping a small amount onto the middle of your tongue, then roll it back and hold it in your mouth for about 20 seconds. The whisky is at its peak of intensity at this moment and will to open up after the initial top notes and ethanol burn.
Again, check to see the distiller’s notes on the label for some guidance.
See if you can detect the types of grains and woods that have been used. Also, think about how the whisky feels in your mouth – is it warming, creamy, oily, smooth, spirity, mouth-coating, mouth-drying, cloying even metallic. Ryes and whisky in European oak tend to be dry, while sherry wood whiskies can feel cloying.
Repeat this process to try the whisky again or a different whisky. Drink bottled or spring water each time to clean your palate.